Heart disease is the number 1 killer in the United States. Each year, almost half a million Americans die from a heart attack. Half of these, or one quarter of a million people, will die suddenly, outside of the hospital, because their heart stops beating.
The most common cause of death from a heart attack in adults is a disturbance in the electrical rhythm of the heart called ventricular fibrillation.
Ventricular fibrillation can be treated, but it requires applying an electrical shock to the chest called defibrillation.
If a defibrillator is not readily available, brain death will occur in less than 10 minutes.
One way of buying time until a defibrillator becomes available is to provide artificial breathing and circulation by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.
The earlier you give CPR to a person in cardiopulmonary arrest (no breathing, no heartbeat), the greater the chance of a successful resuscitation.
By performing CPR, you keep oxygenated blood flowing to the heart and brain until a defibrillator becomes available.
Because up to 80% of all cardiac arrests occur in the home, you are most likely to perform CPR on a family member or loved one.
CPR is one link in what the American Heart Association calls the "chain of survival." The chain of survival is a series of actions that, when performed in sequence, will give a person having a heart attack the greatest chance of survival.
When an emergency situation is recognized, the first link in the chain of survival is early access. This means activating the emergency medical services, or EMS, system by calling 911 (check your community plan, some communities require dialing a different number).
The next link in the chain of survival is to perform CPR until a defibrillator becomes available.
In some areas of the country, simple, computerized defibrillators, known as automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, may be available for use by the lay public or first person on the scene. If available, early defibrillation becomes the next link in the chain of survival.
Once the EMS unit arrives, the next link in the chain of survival is early advanced life support care. This involves administering medications, using special breathing devices, and providing additional defibrillation shocks if needed.
NOTE: This reference is only intended to serve as a guideline for learning about CPR. It is not intended to be a replacement for a formal CPR course. If you are interested in taking a CPR course contact the American Heart Association at (800) AHA-USA1, or the American Red Cross by phoning your local chapter. Never practice CPR on another person, because bodily damage can occur.